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What Are Standardized Field Sobriety Tests?

There are three standardized field sobriety tests and they are called standardized because they have been certified by NHTSA, which is short for the “National Highway Traffic Safety Administration”. Years ago this organization did studies on three tests to get a standardization that officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys could use in evaluating how people who had been pulled over for DUI arrests, performed on tests. They wanted to get some studies done so that they could get some percentages to indicate which number of people did poorly if they were at a certain alcohol level. These tests were done when people were tested at a 0.10 blood alcohol level, which is no longer is the legal limit because we now use 0.08. The standardized field sobriety tests consist of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the one-leg stand and the walk and turn test. If these tests are given properly and interpreted properly, they can help aid an officer determine whether or not someone was impaired. It does not mean definitely or not at all, it would simply act as a guide and it is the closest thing we have to a guideline which is why they are called standardized tests.

How Do Field Sobriety Tests Work?

A lot of these tests would have the person multitask, meaning they would have the person do a couple of things at once. When these standardized tests were set up, they were looking for actions that would recreate driving, meaning divided attention tasks where if the person was driving, they would have to look at their speed, look at the road ahead, they would be braking, steering and doing mental and physical things. These tests try to see if the person would be able to do things like count and balance and pay attention to detail, which would not be like driving and no one was ever tested for these tests before they could drive. If everyone had to do these tests and these same police officers were administering these tests, then probably half the population would not pass them or be able to drive if they were required to do these tests in order to drive.

Why Do So Many People Fail The Field Sobriety Tests?

I have seen people give these tests with no alcohol or drugs at all in their system but the officers still put down that they failed all of these tests. The fact is that some people can do them, whereas some people cannot but officers tend to interpret them however they believe they should. Some officers are very good at interpreting these tests and putting down the clues whereas some are not. I and most DUI attorneys have a big problem with the person’s constitutional rights being challenged based on their balance or based on these tests, because we then have to ask a jury to determine whether or not the person was too impaired to drive based on these tests. I do not believe these are representative of someone’s ability to drive and there are just so many other things that could cause someone not to do well on these tests. Just the fact that this happened late at night and then the stress of being investigated for a DUI, the fear the person would go through thinking they might lose their license if they got a DUI, they might lose their job, they would not be able to pay their mortgage or they would not be able to get their kids to school, would be all the different things flashing through their minds when they were being asked to do these tests at midnight or 2 or 3 in the morning on a cold night or whenever it was. The tests would often be on a slant or on a gravelly road with cars whizzing by which is why the field sobriety tests are very often not indicative of the person’s ability to drive safely.

Many clients have told me they would not be able to do these tests sober, because these are tests that a person would seriously not be able to do if they had poor balance, were overweight or had some medical condition, yet I constantly see people telling the officer they have a knee injury or just had surgery of a bad ankle but the officer would still have them do the test. They would still submit this to the prosecutors, and they would say the person failed the test, whereas the fact is the person would have told the officer in the beginning they could not do their test so they should not have been given that test in the first place.

Can People Refuse These Tests?

Absolutely. The person would not be required to do field sobriety tests, and they would also not be required to do the last test they usually give before they arrest the person, which would be blowing into the preliminary alcohol screening device or the PAS device. In California, the person would only have to do these tests if they had been placed under arrest for DUI, and that would either be a blood test or a breath test so they would have a choice.

I always see officers telling people that if they did not do the tests then they would consider it as refusing to cooperate. In almost every case, the person should just respectfully decline to answer any questions about drinking or driving or anything like that, although they should give the officer their name, contact information, date of birth and that kind of thing so the officer could identify them. They should not do the field sobriety tests because they would not be required to, and it would just give the officer more things to use against the person if they did actually prosecute them for a DUI. The person should just tell the officers in a very polite way that they were not refusing to do it, but that they were respectfully declining to do it. If the person had alcohol in their system or if the officer could smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage, then they can just let the officer go ahead and arrest them unless they could really point to something that showed that the person was impaired. The person should give their lawyer a chance to challenge the arrest and to challenge whatever the officer was claiming was bad driving without adding in how the person did on the field sobriety tests.

For more information on Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, a free initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you’re seeking by calling (415) 523-7878 today.

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Aaron Bortel
With 30 years of specialized experience in DUI defense, Attorney Aaron Bortel is a dedicated advocate for those facing DUI charges in the Bay Area. Committed to helping clients avoid jail, save their driver’s licenses and jobs, and prevent permanent criminal records, he combines deep legal expertise with genuine care for his client's welfare. Trust in a lawyer who not only defends but truly supports you through challenging times.

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